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Iranian Hard-Liners Criticize Zarif's Handshake With Obama

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

The handshake between Barack Obama (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javif Zarif (right) was the first between a U.S. president and a senior Iranian official since 1979.

The handshake between Barack Obama (left) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javif Zarif (right) was the first between a U.S. president and a senior Iranian official since 1979.

Hard-liners in Iran are criticizing a handshake and encounter between U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif that, according to a senior White House official, lasted less than one minute.

The handshake, which occurred on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, was the first between a U.S. president and a senior Iranian official since 1979 when the U.S. cut ties with Iran over the hostage taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran.

Iranian hard-liners said the gesture was a violation of the Iranian establishment's principles and a humiliation for Iran.

"If Zarif has done such a thing, then he has definitely ignored the establishment's red lines," said Mansour Haghighatpour, a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy committee.

"America remains Iran's enemy," he was quoted as saying by the hard-line Tasnim news agency affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. "Therefore, shaking hands with the enemy is contrary to the revolution's principles and against the nation's rights."

The meeting between Obama and Zarif, described as unplanned by Iranian and U.S. officials, occurred in a UN hallway on September 28.

"The President and Foreign Minister Zarif had a chance encounter at the Secretary-General's luncheon, where they shook hands. The interaction was brief, lasting less than a minute," a senior U.S. administration official told the White House press pool.

An official close to Iran's UN delegation told the semiofficial Iranian ISNA news agency that the two men briefly exchanged pleasantries after Iran's President Hassan Rohani spoke to the General Assembly.

"Zarif was leaving the hall when he accidentally faced Obama and [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry, who were about to enter. They briefly greeted each other and the two shook hands," the unnamed official was quoted as saying.

'Pact With The Devil'

The U.S.-educated Zarif led the Iranian team in the nuclear negotiations with the United States and other major world powers and has shaken hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly a number of times.

Yet for some hard-liners who've been critical of the negotiations that led to the landmark nuclear agreement reached in July, the handshake with Obama appeared to be equivalent to a pact with the devil.

"Mr. Zarif, if you truly accidentally faced the Satan, why didn't you make a U-turn so that you wouldn't have to lay your hand on a hand that is stained with the blood of the people of Islamic Iran and other nations," lawmaker Hamid Rasayi asked in a post on Instagram alongside a picture of a handshake between a human hand and a red claw and long, black nails.

"What happened in New York was against [Iran's] national honor and statements by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei," said Hossein Ebrahim, who is a member of the conservative Society of the Combatant Clergy.

He added that it wasn't dignified for the Iranian establishment to go after those "who throughout the history have committed the greatest injustices against us."

There were also condemnations by groups affiliated with Iran's paramilitary Basij organization and hard-line sites and blogs that claimed Zarif had appeased the "Great Satan" and hurt Iran's authority.

Earlier this year, Iranian hard-liners had similar objections to a 15-minute stroll Zarif took with Kerry in Geneva as part of the talks to reach a nuclear deal.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, has said the United States remains Iran's enemy despite the nuclear agreement.

In his UN speech, Obama scolded Iranian hard-liners and said that "chanting 'death to America' does not create jobs or make Iran more secure."

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at


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Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.